Giving Up God For Lent

The Rev. Ethan Jewett, with Saint Clement's Episcopal Church, places ash on Tracey Dougherty's forehead in front of a Starbuc
The Rev. Ethan Jewett, with Saint Clement's Episcopal Church, places ash on Tracey Dougherty's forehead in front of a Starbucks Coffee at the corner of Chestnut and 19th Streets in Philadelphia, Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2013. Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, a time when Christians prepare for Easter through acts of penitence and prayer. Jewett said he placed ash on just over 600 worshiper's foreheads. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

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The first time I met Nietzche was on a t-shirt.

One of the guys from my youth group was wearing one of those shirts that I think people buy from Pacific Sun, and it was emblazoned with a slogan that I didn't understand at the time.

The front of the shirt said,

God is dead.

And the back of the shirt said,

Nietzche is dead.

I asked this guy about his shirt and he told me it just meant Nietzche was some atheist philosopher who was now in Hell because he told everyone that God had died.

The next time I met Nietzche was in a college textbook. But this time, I knew who he was.

"The 'God is Dead' guy," I answered when my teacher asked our class if we'd heard of the German philosopher.

"Yes," Dr. P laughed, "Nietzche did say that. But do you know what he meant by it? Do you know the story of the madman?"

I didn't feel like explaining to the teacher that entire stories couldn't fit on hipster t-shirts, so I shook my head no and waited for his explanation.

Dr. P told us Nietzche's parable from The Gay Science about a madman who rushes into a marketplace, carrying a lantern and announcing the death of God. When his listeners respond with mockery and laughter, he realizes that he has come too early, and that no one is ready to hear his message. He smashes his lantern and leaves the marketplace, and breaks into several churches, where he asks the chilling question, "What after all are these churches now if they are not the tombs and sepulchers of God?"

After Dr. P finished the lecture, our entire class followed him to his office where we laid into him. God is dead? Churches are tombs? Did you just read Nietzche out loud to our whole philosophy class?

God, contrary to what Nietzsche or my philosophy teacher thought, was most certainly not dead. He was living in my heart, and I was certain of it - and that was the problem.

One year later, while sitting in a different class with Dr. P, I discovered that maybe Nietzche was right. My professor began this particular lecture by writing two Greek words on the blackboard: eikon and eidos. The first he translated as "image" or "icon," and used it to refer to God as a wholly God -- tout autre, wholly other. The second, the Greek term for "idol," Dr. P explained was what happens to God when we comprehend him firmly in intellectual hubris. Dr. P told us that when we've finally understood all there is to know about God, then all we've really understood is a God we've created in our image. "Whenever you think you've arrived at eikon," he warned us, "you've really only gotten to eidos."

Lent, the period of 40 days leading up to Easter, is meant to prepare our hearts to receive God: to receive God as God, as wholly other, as the Other who is coming, who is always coming, always arriving, always surprising us in the face of the dinner guest who shows up unexpectedly asking if we've remembered to prepare him a seat. And to ready ourselves for this meeting, Christians traditionally give something up: coffee, alcohol, the Internet -- one clever, gluten-free friend of mine mused he was giving up wheat. But the purpose of this giving up is to empty our hearts so that when God arrives -- and God is always arriving -- we are ready for the event. Our "idols," those things in our lives undeserving of worship, must be released from our hands, so that we may hold them open to the startling event that is God's Kingdom Come.

As the Psalmist writes, the one who will be permitted to ascend the hill of the Lord is the one whose hands are clean, whose fingers do not reach for idols -- idols either of the heart or mind, of passion or intellect, of philosophy or (God help us!) theology.

Indeed, the God of my rigid ideologies, of my complacent Theology; the God who validates my unwillingness to explore heresies, and rewards me for arrogantly dismissing them as sinful; the God who grounds my intellectual arrogance in His omniscience, and my politics in his omnipotence; the God who vanquishes all of His and my inquisitive foes, forever silencing their obnoxious questions with the fires of Hell; whose very Nature demands that humans separate and categorize the world into manageable divisions; the God who has made His Will known to us through Natural Law, and a Holy Book, every word of which we are to follow without hesitation or consideration; whose ethical character remains beyond discussion; whose decisions remain beyond the scope of human analysis; the God who grounds all Thought in his Being - this God, who is Himself nothing more than an idol of Modernism, is dead.

My goal for Lent is to remember this death, and to meditate on it in reverence, humility, and mystery. And to reflect not on the God who rules by power, but a god who leads by love; who identifies with the weak; whose foolishness upsets omniscience; a God who reveals Himself in many ways, who reveals Himself in a first century peasant named Jesus; a God who empties Himself of God, and offers Himself to his enemies in submission and servitude; who is concerned with the plight of widows and orphans, the least among us, and the disadvantaged; who sends Jesus to go after the marginalized and the misunderstood, and to bring back home again those who have been ostracized and forgotten.

I am giving up God for Lent to make room for God. I am prying open my fingers, and letting all of my theological idols crash to the ground. And I am lifting up my empty hands to Heaven in anticipation of God's arrival, and quietly echoing the unsettling words of Meister Eckhart: "I pray God to rid me of God."